Cecilia Le. Utica Observer-Dispatch. 12/21/2004.

UTICA -- About 15 small city school districts plan to sue the state for more funding in late January, joining the Utica City School District.

The state Association of Small City School Districts will file on their behalf, saying the state gives them insufficient funding to provide a basic education.

"Our intention is we're seeking statewide reform," said Robert Biggerstaff, the association's executive director and general counsel. "Having one or two small cities bring their case wouldn't accomplish that goal. There are 57 small cities. Of those, 30 to 35 have got a very strong case similar to the case Utica can make."

Utica's case was in Albany County Supreme Court Friday for a preliminary conference. School lawyer Donald Gerace said he expects the case to go to trial in mid-April.

The parties will spend the next six months to a year doing evidence-gathering. The state has until Jan. 6, 2006, to make a motion to dismiss the case.

"Now there has been a complaint and an answer, which essentially frames the case for the court," said Paul Larrabee, spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office. "The next step is the evidence gathering. A lot could happen before trial. We're still in the preliminary stage."

He had no comment on the prospect of other districts joining Utica's lawsuit.

That lawsuit, filed in July, says the district receives far less funding than average even though it has low wealth and high student need. An answer from the state filed last week denies Utica's claims.

Utica has until March 1 to amend its lawsuit or join other parties.

"The more unified school districts are on this issue, the more notice the governor and state will take of our claims," school lawyer Donald Gerace said. "School districts are not just going to wait for a legislative remedy."

Utica's lawsuit is modeled on that of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which won last year on behalf of New York City students. A court-appointed panel last month said the city schools need to almost double their spending to give students a basic education. Educators and lawmakers say funding reform is needed statewide, but legislators have been unable to agree on a new system.

Biggerstaff said small cities spend 20 percent less per child than the state average.